Andrea Weiss and Wieland Speck's Escape to Life: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story (Quad, opens January 11) chronicles the careers of Thomas Mann's oldest children, both gay actor-writers who performed anti-Fascist cabaret and found themselves in exile during World War II, like many German artists and intellectuals of the period. Though much of the duo's art has been forgotten outside Germany, their memory lives on in a few bits of cinematic trivia: Klaus penned the autobiographical novel Mephisto, the basis of the 1981 film by Istvan Szabo, while Erika starred in Madchen in Uniform (1931). Escape to Life's halfhearted attempts at nontraditional form are hobbled by mainstream TV production values, with standard stock-footage illustrations clumsily married to scripted docudrama re-enactments of the siblings' lives. This dull combination is, perhaps, an unresolved conflict from the work's genesis, as the film originally began as two separate projects: one a documentary on Erika, the other a set of narrative shorts inspired by Klaus's stories. Weiss and Speck never make a convincing case for the relevance of these two 20th-century footnotes. The only rationale for the production seems to be that the pair were gay, and therein lies the main problem with this uninspired example of queer-film-festival filler.
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